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Vineyard Designates (Sans Varietal) Need a Name

An emerging category is missing a moniker
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 16, 2013 4:34pm ET

Near as I can tell, Ridge Vineyards started the trend. Saxum does it too. Andrew Will pioneered it in Washington, where Cadence followed suit, and Owen Roe is the latest to jump in. These are all first-class wineries, and they independently came to the same conclusion: That for these wines they would rather blend grape varieties from a single vineyard to a site-specific wine than make a series of vineyard-designated varietals.

It struck me, as I removed the bag in yesterday's blind tasting from Owen Roe's Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blend simply called DuBrul Vineyard, that this is becoming a separate category. And yet, we don't have a name for it. "Vineyard-designate" would be fine, except we use that to describe varietals that come from a single vineyard. Two dozen Oregon wineries make Pinot Noirs from Shea Vineyard, and include a line on their labels identifying the source, but the wine type on each wine is Pinot Noir.

This is something different. The wine type is the vineyard name. That Owen Roe DuBrul, for example, is 46 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 31 percent Merlot and 23 percent Cabernet Franc. It can't be called Cabernet Sauvignon on the label, because U.S. rules require it be at least 75 percent of the blend for that. Most wineries invent a proprietary name—Peter Michael's Les Pavots is a famous example—but these vintners celebrate the real source of the wine's character, the vineyard source. Saxum's legendary James Berry Vineyard bottling, for example, usually consists of about 50 percent Grenache, the rest divided between Syrah and Mourvèdre.

These wineries also have practical reasons for taking this route. I remember talking with Ridge founder and winemaker Paul Draper when he first decided to change the name of his Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery's Monte Bello Vineyard to simply Monte Bello with the 1989 vintage. One prime reason was to create more flexibility in making the best blend with Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties, just as the great châteaus of Bordeaux do. The 2009 Monte Bello, for example, is 72 percent Cabernet, not enough to qualify as a varietal but, Draper believes, a better wine for its 22 percent Merlot and 6 percent Petit Verdot.

Realizing that he was tweaking all of the winery's bottlings with dollops of this and that to create more depth and balance, he extended the idea to all of the wines. Geyserville in most vintages could qualify as a varietal Zinfandel, but the current 2011 benefits from 16 percent Carignane, 4 percent Petite Sirah, 1 percent Alicante Bouschet and 1 percent Mataro (Mourvèdre).

With Ridge as an example, Chris Camarda followed suit in 2000. Instead of bottling a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot from, say, Champoux Vineyard (where he was, and still is, a partner in the vineyard), he decided to make a blend. Aside from a focus on the vineyard characteristics rather than the varietal expression, he wanted to simplify his portfolio. He had too many wines with only a few hundred cases. By making a vineyard wine without a grape type to hem him in, he could not only make better, more balanced wines but have more than a thousand cases of each, making them more available to customers.

Now, quietly and without fanfare, David O'Reilly has followed suit at Owen Roe, focusing on three mainstays of his vineyard sources. Aside from DuBrul, the lineup includes Red Willow (60 percent Merlot) and Union Gap (40 percent Merlot) vineyards.

At Wine Spectator, for purposes of organizing like wines with like wines, we categorize these wines along with proprietary wines according to the dominant grape in the blend. So Monte Bello and DuBrul are listed in our database as Cabernet Sauvignon blends, Geyserville with Zinfandels and Red Willow and Union Gap with Merlot Blends.

So, what do we call these single-vineyard wines that don't flaunt a grape on the front label? Anyone have any bright ideas?

John Shuey
Dallas TX —  May 16, 2013 5:43pm ET
Why do we need to call them anything?

Cheval Blanc nor Lafite seem to not suffer from lacking a defining designation on their labels. Nor, as you point out, does Monte Bello.

I would welcome the demise of single-variety, single-vineyard designated wines made in 25, 50, or even 200 case lots.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 16, 2013 5:54pm ET
John, that's just the point. We need a name to distinguish these wines from the single-variety, single-vineyard wines.

Also, note that the rules defining France's appellations limit the varieties permitted, so they don't need a separate category. New World labels are inherently different. If you want a parallel look no further than Alsace or Germany.
Brandon Redman
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  May 16, 2013 7:46pm ET
I tend to like the approach of naming a blend from a single vineyard something OTHER than the vineyard, and making note that it's 100% site-specific on the label. For example, isn't Mark Ryan's 'Lost Soul' Syrah all from Red Willow Vineyard? I don't know why, really, but it might just become boring to hear 50 wines all called the same thing, all from different wineries.
Christopher Ivey
Chicago, IL —  May 17, 2013 8:22am ET
Isn't it referred to as a "field blend"? Among wines we know and love well, Quinta do Vallado proudly designates one of their Reservas as such on the front label. It's clear, concise, descriptive. "Dubrul Vineyard, field blend." Easy.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  May 17, 2013 9:21am ET
Christopher -- a "field blend" is when the grapes are grown, harvested and fermented together...with each row containing multiple varietals. This is the classic California approach to winemaking to take advantage of differenting ripening and tannic profiles of the various grapes. For example, Bedrock makes a Zin predominate field blend that has 21 different grapes (it rocks BTW). I suspect (although maybe Harvey can confirm), that most of the other wines listed (except maybe Geyserville) have the varietals harvested separately and then blended together from the barrel at some point prior to bottling. A field blend leaves you at the mercy of the field.... a "vineyard designate blend" gives the winemaker more control.
Jeffrey D Travis
Sarasota, FL —  May 17, 2013 10:02am ET
Harvey, perhaps not a bright idea, but maybe a cloudy one; how about Bespoke Vineyard Wines?
Owen Roe Winery
Yakima, WA —  May 17, 2013 11:10am ET
Harvey, I’m all for a separate category for the Bordeaux Blend.
My impetus for the three vineyard specific multi-varietal blends, however, was to first make the best wine from each location and by doing so, to highlight the viticultural diversity of the Yakima Valley AVA.
Comprised of 600,000 acres with a range on the U.C. Davis heat scale from Region 1 to pushing Region 4, the Yakima Valley can be difficult to explain. I’m sure that as we mature as a region we most likely, will see new AVA’s and enjoy greater awareness. Napa Valley, a fraction the land area of Yakima Valley, has 16 sub-AVA’s to our 3.
The blends on the three wines that you tasted are as distinct as the vineyards, Red Willow the coolest site has a greater percentage of the early ripening Merlot and DuBrul the warmest is Cabernet Sauvignon dominant and our own Union Gap Estate is the mean between the two.
As Juliet said, “what’s in a name”? Hopefully, some tasty Owen Roe wine.
David O'Reilly
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 17, 2013 11:50am ET
Thanks for your comments, David. It doesn't look like it will be easy to find a name for this category, but it's a trend I like because it relies on the real source of a wine's character, the vineyard. Too bad this idea didn't come first, then they would simply be called vineyard-designates and the others would be single-varietal vineyard-designates.
Timothy Drew
Oslo, Norway —  May 18, 2013 4:41pm ET
Aren't these more or less just field blends? Single vineyard, mixed grapes...
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 18, 2013 5:22pm ET
As Andrew points out, a field blend is a wine made from grapes of various varieties grown in the same vineyard and picked at the same time. For these wines (and for most Bordeaux and Rhône blends in France) the grapes are picked separately at optimal ripeness for each variety.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  May 20, 2013 12:08am ET
...and so what if they are? I think "field blend" tells us the bottle represents the totality of the vineyard. Picked when? Who cares! Cofermented? Nearly irrelevant.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  May 20, 2013 2:48am ET
Sorry, I seem to have touched a nerve, Don. One reason I hesitate over "field blend" is that it's a term that's already in use and has a definition. Co-opting an existing term could lead to confusion instead of clarity.

Also, in making a field blend, the various varieties are usually at different stages of ripeness when picked. Some are a little green, others overripe. That produces a very different wine than does growing the grapes separately, picking them at optimum ripeness, and blending. Co-fermenting also produces a very different wine than simply blending the wines later would. Ask any winemaker who makes Syrah-Viognier.
Steven Stiansen
Saratoga Springs, NY —  May 20, 2013 4:23pm ET
How about vineyard cuvée?
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  May 22, 2013 9:03pm ET
Harvey, you may have noticed that I voice strong opinions, usually about preconceptions and "tradition". I believe that a lot of "old" benefits from "new" thinking.

Language never stands still and needs re-examination and to reflect its purpose. I happen to like Steven's suggestion of "vineyard cuvee" too. But... MAYBE, just MAYBE, the cofermentation and picking coordination points about "field blend" are assumptions, outside of the old world?

Firstly, I believe this is purely "jargon", worth virtually nothing, since without a law or standard we'll never see it printed on any bottle. Perspective.

Pick up a bottle and it says nothing about being a field blend. The website might use the term though... which one discovers after buying it. So what is the value now of all those assumptions about how the grapes were harvested and wine were made? Nothing - I already bought it and maybe already drank it. Too late to be informed by the term.

Pick up a bottle, it says "field blend". LOL - where are THOSE, BTW? Never seen one, myself. Hey, maybe it's because it isn't defined universally? Back to the example of a "field blend" label, can we assume it was all picked at once? I doubt it. Can we assume how it was fermented? I doubt it... BOTH may be true in MANY cases. But where's the rule? The law or definition? If there is one, does it apply to all countries? Moreover, what's the point of the distinction? Will we actually be so rigid as to make assumptions about the wine's "very different" character based on this? I won't!

To assume that this pre-existing term is understood to mean all those things is folly, if only because we don't see it used on product. And this is my point: Your excellent (and well-detailed) definition of this term MAY HAVE crept in scope (within the industry - not a personal attack!) beyond what it ought to designate. It MAY also simply be out of date. "Field blend" just means the vineyard isn't planted exclusively to one varietal, in my uneducated and bold opinion. And perhaps that's why I like it so much - THAT'S meaningful. It's a simple piece of info that would make me want to know more about what varietals the vineyard is planted to.

If we're going to use any such term to imply cofermented, then the word "cofermented" ought to be included to communicate that. But seriously, what's the point? If the "very different" nature of those cofermented wines doesn't come through in the other specific tasting notes, then it's not "very" different. I'd rely on your tasting notes over ANY "information" I might think I know after hearing someone call a wine a cofermented field blend.

I care not for the specific term used, when it comes right down to it. Field blend or vineyard cuvee or other, OK with me. But more importantly, since I can't draw any conclusion about this kind of wine, vs. what you have defined as a "field blend", I don't care for making assumptions about it based on how the vines are planted, harvested & fermented, chiefly because that information isn't available across the board, certainly not on the actual bottles, where I need it when I'm in the store.

Great conversation, though, Harvey. I appreciate having an opportunity to debate this with you and reserve the right to be persuaded by you at any minute. LOL. And this doesn't mean I don't respect you! I do. ;-)

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